Revelations

Watership Down

I don’t know whether Richard Adams wrote any other novels, or books of any other sort, for that matter, but this one is a masterpiece. If all you know is that it’s about rabbits, or even (as I’d vaguely assumed) something to do with the English countryside, the pathos of the storytelling will come as a surprise. These are particularly heroic rabbits!

The most curious thing about the novel is Adams’ careful attention to keeping his plot very nearly to the strictly plausible. There are of course fantastic elements – this is a “talking animals book” after all – but the critters are much less humanized than I’d have expected.

The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth, and Other Stories

Along with the opening story that give the volume its name, this collection of Roger Zelazny short stories features the other stunners “The Keys to December” and “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” – along with other quite good material that still comes off, by comparison, as so much filler.

This collection also served to crystallize an understanding of Zelazny’s work as a whole: he was simply fascinated by genius, supermen in a practically Nietzschean sense. Virtually all of his work that’s not purely comic – and some of that – features one or more. It’s taken a while for this to sink in, simply because of the range of variations he plays on the theme.

It’s an interesting – or amusing – contrast to his own workmanlike and carefully planned-out writing career. It did make me wonder what we might have gotten had Zelazny gotten a chance to write some actual Superman stories.

Rebecca

There are apparently a lot of books with this title. The one I read is the one by Daphne du Maurier. I don’t know that I can quite do it justice. I’ve not read another book that manages to quite capture the socially petrifying imagination – of scenes gone wrong; of scenes gone right but obviously impossible, and baffling even if possible – that characterizes her protagonist narrator’s self-image particularly in the first part of the book.

Weirdly – at least without spoilers – the best impression I can give of its tone is by comparison. It owes quite a deal to Jane Eyre; in fact, one can almost interpret it as Jane Eyre for a later generation. Which later generation I refer to can best be explained by saying that everybody being force to read The Great Gatsby ought to read this instead. (Except that du Maurier was not American, a qualification without which nobody would ever have to assign The Great Gatsby in the first place, but which also prevents Rebecca‘s entry into that lists.)

Review: The Book of the Dun Cow

After about 70 pages, I almost didn’t finish this one. The middle half is better, and probably made it worth reading, once, but I’m not even quite sure about that. The story owes something to Chaucer, and something to Milton, references various European legends, and possibly authors I didn’t pick up on. The plot is fine; it’s the style that breaks down.

The end paper informs me that Rev. Walter Wangerin, Jr. mostly wrote children’s books, and that this was his first novel. The problem with the first part of the book is that he can’t decide whether he’s writing tongue-in-cheek or not. The effect is rather like a story-teller who keeps winking at the audience but never gets to a punchline; possibly never actually meant to tell a joke at all.

The language – throughout, but especially in the first part – has the angularity I associate with Lutheran hymn tunes: where other denominations tend to subtly alter rhythms to suit English better, the Lutherans have, as best I can tell, kept the original German rhythms despite translating the words. The effect is a bit odd when you grew up with the other, and this book produces the same effect – as if English, at least in its most common American incarnation, isn’t quite the author’s native dialect. Of course Wangerin was actually a Lutheran, but I didn’t know that when I started reading or came up with the comparison – I don’t ever read the end papers first.

The final problem is that the story just isn’t consistent. The characters – talking animals all – don’t develop, they just change as necessary. The rules that seem clearly laid out – Wangerin spends whole chapters on them – are subverted without sufficient explanation. And there’s a sort of Book of Judges problem in that the characters are, for the most part, not actually likeable. I think Wangerin meant the book to be deadly serious; but he keeps slipping into – or never quite gets out of – a narrative tone that leads the reader to expect something much lighter. On the other hand, he keeps giving hints that the story is supposed to be, if not allegorical, at least some way religious in meaning; but the moral is never spelled out, and if it’s just a parable about the Providence of God I would rather go re-read Job. Or “The Wanderer”.

Review: Black Sun

I picked up Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun looking for something by an author I hadn’t read before, and something that wasn’t a series. Apparently I didn’t manage the latter: the cover may just say “a novel” but inside you will find “Between Earth and Sky: Book One”, which I hadn’t bothered to look for until I’d bought it.

Anyway.

It is a fairly good fantasy novel, in a setting recognizably based on Mesoamerican civilizations. This is mainly cosmetic: the author’s interests and morality are as anachronistic as in most fantasy. However, the character Serapio is a startlingly unique creation – how much is due to American myths and how much to the author’s imagination I can’t say, but for his arc the book was worth reading if nothing else.

Roanhorse exhibits a gift for portraying character types in very short descriptions: this has the unfortunate effect in places of making minor characters seem more intriguing than some of the major ones who are portrayed in details but whose own motivations and actions end up rather flat. The action runs as tightly to a time-table as any mystery novel, which has the unfortunate effect of inducing one howling plot hole where an impossible timing is forced through without comment – oh, I can think of two or three different ways to at least hint at a justification within the story, but I can’t tell from the book as actually written whether Roanhorse missed the problem or intentionally elected to leave it to the reader’s imagination.

As Roanhorse explains in her afterword, she deliberately set out to write “epic” in a setting not based on Europe, and this extends to defying social conventions as well. Actually by the standards of much fantasy characters’ personal sexual habits, as far as explored, are rather restrained and have unsurprising consequences, even if it’s clear the author thinks those might be unfair. One city’s clans are ruled by matriarchs – although this hardly relevant to the story, and thus what I referred to as a “cosmetic” detail earlier. The ruling priesthood is – this being modern fantasy – egalitarian, and the potential weaknesses there barely hinted at.

Most unconventionally, Roanhorse includes characters who refuse to call themselves men or women – only she does it, I have to say, in such a way as seems calculated to irritate the most possible readers. I have seen it alleged that this is an attribute assigned to certain priests or shamans in some cultures; however, Roanhorse makes no use of or reference to that here: the behavior portrayed is the modern one of defying one’s physical sex as a personal choice.

On the one hand, she treats this behavior as legitimate, and the pronominal bastardizations insisted on today read like a slap in the face. On the other hand, to carry this off at all she is forced to avoid descriptions that would be given to any other character – one of the few awkwardnesses in the writing – and she quietly implies such behavior is a choice, not an essence, in that the dead body of one is described according to its sex.

This is evidently the only sensible way to regard the phenomenon, whether one condones or condemns it – but it runs counter to the “orthodoxy” insisted on by those who allow or encourage it today. Thus my comment that Roanhorse is likely to have irritated as many people as possible this way: traditionalists by including such characters at all; and today’s progressives by implicitly refusing the putative dominance of self-identification over reality.

Roanhorse – at least in retrospect – does at least use this effectively within her plot. The actual effect is hidden in a first read, and dampened overall, by her inclination to push egalitarian themes rather than trying to really get into the head of characters living in what is, by many indications, fairly traditionally divided. The themes Roanhorse still manages to hint at could have been handled with much more regard to mythic significance if she weren’t, as you might say, at war with the conceptions of the majorities within her created world.

I allow that it’s possible that many of these themes hinted at in this first volume may be worked out in greater detail or power in the remainder of the books still to be written. Only, even having read the book, I’m inclined to think it should have been left to stand alone. The ending would have to be handled differently – two or three ways come to mind – to wrap up the loose ends of the plot (or in other words, to avoid sequel hooks). The difficulty I see is that any future plot must – it seems to me inevitably – succumb again to more conventional elements, leaving the setting merely cosmetic once again. While this book was worth a read, I don’t know that I’ll re-read it, and certainly not often; as for whatever comes next, I’m likely only to look up the plot some day.

Reviews: Unicorn Variations, The History of the Franks

In what will probably be the final review in my year-long project, I add in a couple different books – one a collection of short stories (science fiction and fantasy) and essays by Roger Zelazny, and one a quite antique book of European History.  It’s been a little bit interesting to have a reason to note what I’ve been reading: my chief discovery was how very much I actually re-read; the other thing I noticed was that I rarely seem to have fewer than three books in progress at a time – if nothing else, I’ll have a bit of light reading, a more serious work, and then some other book at school for downtime – and this is without considering any devotional reading.

Unicorn Variations

A major theme of this collection is foreign intelligences – alien, man-made, or mythological.  Other stories are perhaps better thought of as Zelazny’s thought experiments on sex and death – not that they don’t overlap.  Most stories are introduced briefly, and interspersed with the stories are some short essays on writing fiction (some specifically addressing science fiction).  Not all feature Zelazny as his best – in particular, the lead and titular story “Unicorn Variation” is somewhat meandering, perhaps a result of having too many ideas attempted in too few pages.  (Alternatively, because the actual story is, at the length it is told, fairly uninteresting.)

Although this has nothing to do with the collection as a whole, I did notice with some surprise that when I read the story “Home is the Hangman”, I recognized it – from the very first Zelazny I ran across, a novel of sorts (which someone else had brought along to round-up for a high school Shakespeare adaptation) called My Name is Legion.  Having taken a look, I found that Legion is a rather artificial construct – three short stories featuring the same character (perhaps originally only similar ones?) strung together.

The History of the Franks

Gregory of Tours’ work, on the other hand, is a fairly scholarly piece of business written in a popular tone – to the point I wondered whether the translator ( Lewis Thorpe) might not have overdone it a bit in places.  To go through it properly would take a good deal of time and some careful note-taking to keep all the names straight.  It’s an enjoyable read, not too long: Gregory takes a section to go through the entire history of the world (as he understood it) and then gets down to the rather gory business of the Frankish kingdoms’ politics and occasional ecclesiastical disputes.

The book produced a number of impressions, of which I will mention the most notable.  First, Gregory’s history covers quite a bit of his own time, and it is curious how self-effacing he is when dealing with political matters, especially when contrasted with his lengthy narratives of a few ecclesiastical or religious controversies.  Second, it serves as a useful reminder to be careful about our self-evaluations: despite the History being mainly one of chaos and civil war, at one point Gregory calmly declares how much better off the Franks have been than those heretical Arian Visigoths (the Spanish kingdoms), whose king had to put down a rebellion by his son.  Third, remarkable mainly because of the weather this year, for several years in a row Gregory notes that the Winter was much warmer than usual.

A curious fact is the number of things Gregory (or his later copyists) managed to get wrong, despite all his evident care – the most startling are his misnaming or misarranging of Biblical persons in his introduction (the translator suggests that he must have felt confident enough to work from memory), but evidently (judging from the footnotes) Gregory’s account does not entirely agree with other contemporary works as to the names or order of various dynasties.  However, those same footnotes also mention periodically – perhaps a dozen times – that one or another of Gregory’s sources has, sadly, since been lost.

Reviews: Inversions, 2046

The problem with break is that it means I have more time to read and watch things, which means I get behind on this.  Almost done with 2015, so my project of reviewing all the new things is just about over.  But for now, another twofer.

Inversions, by Iain M. Banks

Iain Banks is best known for his science fiction, oddly personal stories set in a cosmos starkly unforgiving, not to say amoral and at times inhuman (literally or figuratively).  Inversions is not one of those, however, but is a fantasy set some time after the fall of a great Empire, leaving warring kingdoms squabbling over the remnants with late-Medieval technology.  The title refers at least to the structure of the story, as Banks presents concurrent events from the perspective of members of two such courts.  However, I think the reference is supposed to go deeper than that – the story has layers – I am simply not sure how far.

I am inclined to consider this one of Banks’ better novels; it is also probably a good place to start for the reader curious about Banks but put off by his reputation, as his normal tendency to vulgarity (and depravity) is toned way down.  He may even suggest something like a moral.

2046, dir. Wong Kar-wai

I stumbled across this film by accident, trying to track down on YouTube the music of Hanyu Yuzuru’s recent phenomenal free skate, “Seimei” by Japanese composer Umebayashi Shigeru.  Various tracks he did for 2046 came up – and the full movie, which tells, in what is apparently Wong’s signature style, the story of some of Mr. Chow’s various affairs, over which the number “2046” seems to hang.  The Chow character, a journalist and writer, serves as narrator as he recounts his various misadventures and reflects on what love is, or could be.  I am not entirely sure whether to regard the film as attempting to be profound or at least “human”, or to see it merely an exercise in displaying pretty women in pretty dresses (or out of them but carefully covered up, in a plethora of sexual moments throughout the film).  At times Chow reminded me of Hemingway (either the author or his characters), of Hitchcock’s film of The 39 Steps, or of some of Le Carre’s work.  A very finely made film, and one I would not mind seeing again, if only to puzzle out its “message”.

Review: The Emperor’s Blades

I decided this year I would attempt to write something about every new book I read or film I watched.  It actually began as a resolution to write about every book or film, but then I realized I do way too much re-reading for that to be practical given my level of non-committment to this blog: a month and a half in and, along with the (serious! historical!) tome I’m currently working through, the rereads already are up to four: Nine Princes in Amber, The Cardinal of the Kremlin, That Hideous Strength, and Lord of Light.  I may have read a couple others as well; I don’t exactly keep count.

Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades, as you might guess from the title, fits more with the light reading of that list.  It’s not only a new book to me but simply a new book, published last year.  Its setting is a fairly generic fantasy empire – wizards, ascetics, warriors, kings, the works –  which the protagonists must, naturally, rescue from its latest calamity, while perhaps learning something about the secrets of their noble (or otherwise) ancestors.  It’s also generic in that it’s intended as the beginning of a series, so resolutions to the main conflicts are rather lacking.  It might even be fair to say that more problems are raised than solved.

In tone, it’s similar to a lot of modern fantasy in that the world is assumed to be not such a nice place, and clear morality is apparently lacking, but the “good” people still mostly behave the way modern Westerner thinks they should – that is to say, doing no harm (unless you’re a soldier, in which case, whatever), and concern for the greatest good (of the people), and not much concern really for strictures of family or societal morality.

The writing is solid, sometimes even good.  Staveley avoids the trap a lot of empire-spanning works have fallen into (imitating not so much Tolkien’s original as Tolkien’s imitators, and I’m mostly, with regard to recent authors, blaming Jordan and Martin here) of trying to see every character’s point of view.  We have – at least right now – only the three protagonists, and their motivations are clearly pictured.  So far at least, the characters are not very deep and seem to encourage the reader to fall back on stereotypes, but that could change in further volumes.  There is one caveat: although Staveley does a decent job sketching a single protagonist’s character, motivations, and interests, his writing noticeably falls off when the protagonists interact and he tries to account for both perspectives at once.

This may be at least because plot-wise Stavelely seems determined to come up with a convoluted one, if only because it’s not entirely clear what the plot is or who’s really behind it.  Despite various revelations, on my reading at least their remains the question whether the “truths” revealed to the characters are in fact true.  My best guess is that certain of the details of the series’ plot he doesn’t even have worked out himself yet., or may have changed his mind even while writing this volume.
Overall I’d give the volume a C+ or B-: it was a fun read and I finished wanting to read the sequel but I don’t feel any need to re-read the book any time soon.  Whether it tilts higher or lower in the end probably depends on the tone and quality of said sequels, which may not be entirely fair but I say it’s Staveley’s fault for writing a series.